What a difference a decade makes. When the Nashville Scene first experienced out-of-town ownership by the Village Voice Media (VVM) chain in 2000, investors were treating alternative weekly papers as solid bets with reliable revenue and cash flow. A New York Times story at the time referred to alt-weeklies like the Scene as "reservoirs of value."Today's alt-weeklies, along with the rest of the newspaper industry, are coping with declining ad revenue, shrinking staffs, dwindling print readership and a financially murky digital future. For the Scene, those murky waters will now be navigated by local owners. After nine years in chains, the Scene has returned to local control with VVM's sale of the paper last month to Nashville-based SouthComm.
Created in 2007 by former Scene publisher Chris Ferrell, SouthComm also owns The City Paper, the subscription-based business news site NashvillePost.com, and a smattering of smaller print publications catering to specific audiences (including Her Nashville, Music Row, and Business Tennessee). SouthComm's portfolio also includes Louisville's alt-weekly paper LEO Weekly as well as some medical newsletters and two custom publishing businesses.
Buying the Scene, which CEO Ferrell says he's been trying to do since he left it in 2007, fits a theory of media enterprise that Ferrell has been cultivating at SouthComm. The demise of classified print advertising and declining subscriptions are crushing daily dead-tree journalism, but Ferrell is convinced it's not the death of all print journalism. Sensing unmet reader demand for local news and commercial demand for local advertising vehicles, Ferrell wants to mix real-time news provided online with longer-form content delivered in print publications geared to niche audiences.
Part of the logic lies in efficiencies achieved through staff integration. Since the deal went down on Aug. 21, the Scene's editorial staff has moved out to Grassmere to bond with scribes at The City Paper and NashvillePost.com, while sales and finance types have taken up group residence in the former Scene digs in the Gulch. As with all mergers, efficiencies for some mean pink slips for others: four SouthComm employees and 12 Scenesters ended up on the outside looking in.
Does Ferrell's blend of publications in a single market hold water as a profitable local media model for the future? It's a unique model, but so far an untested one. The trend in media mergers has been to collect similar publications across markets, cloning, say, alt-weeklies or business journals in multiple cities. Ferrell's approach favors within-market bundles over a single niche chained across markets.
The Scene acquisition completes SouthComm's tableau for Nashville—the alpha test of Ferrell's theory. Ownership of LEO Weekly signals that Louisville will be the beta test. Ferrell confirms that SouthComm is looking to buy in Louisville, where LEO's editor Stephen George told me he's "very interested to see what happens in Nashville."
SouthComm corporate strategy aside, a more pressing question is how liberation from the VVM chain will affect the Scene itself. When owners Bruce Dobie and Albie Del Favero first put the Scene inside newly created VVM in 2000, the paper changed little because VVM was more interested in financial than editorial control. VVM "brought a cultural and intellectual adherence to advocacy journalism" of the kind the Scene was doing, recalls Dobie, who continued as editor until Liz Garrigan took over in 2004.
More noticeable change came in 2006 after VVM's six papers merged with the New Times chain of 11 alt-weeklies. Although the combined chain took the VVM name, it was the New Times approach that prevailed and reoriented the Scene's editorial vibe.
The marriage between the Scene and the new VVM was tricky. The Scene was unusual for alt-weeklies, with a broader demographic and a meaningful role in city affairs. "Its reach and influence here ran circles around virtually all of its counterparts across the country," says Garrigan, "and while the New Times/VVM folks had many virtues, I'm not sure they ever really appreciated or understood the role of this storied institution and how rooted it was."
The new VVM—"the Gannett of the alt-weekly world," quips former Scene media critic Henry Walker—wanted its papers to ditch community journalism and advocacy in favor of racier cover stories appealing to a younger demographic. (The average Scene reader is 42.) Arts coverage shifted, with more reliance on syndicated content and limits on acceptable areas of reporting and criticism. VVM wanted the book page gone, but Garrigan persuaded her corporate overlords to let her keep it.
When Garrigan left in mid-2008, VVM replaced her with Pete Kotz, an out-of-town guy who had run a New Times paper in Cleveland. Under Kotz, the writers got younger and the content grew edgier in tone, especially online where VVM mandated frequent injections of fresh material. The Scene's three blogs, Pith in the Wind (news and media), Bites (food) and Cream (music), attracted more traffic. Meanwhile, driven by both VVM's priorities and shrinking page counts in a horrible economy, the news hole in the front of the paper largely evaporated.
Some longtime readers found these shifts jarring. Political media consultant Bill Fletcher says the Scene "doesn't seem quite as relevant and quite as vital," in part because of "an aggressive frat-house vibe" that mutes its impact. Veteran political analyst Pat Nolan hopes the Scene regains its influential presence in the community, joking that "I used to pick up the Scene so that I knew what to think."
SouthComm executives say they want the paper to get that mojo back. Ferrell replaced Kotz with Scene veteran Jim Ridley, an unknown quantity as an editor, before the ink on the deal had a chance to dry. "I wanted an editor who fit with my vision for where the Scene is going," says Ferrell, "rather than following in the VVM model." Kotz describes the VVM approach as built for bigger cities where ad revenues can support a paper aimed at younger readers; before the sale, Nashville was its smallest market. Now editor of VVM's national crime blog, Kotz is wistful about his hasty Music City exit: "The guy who owns it gets to say, and that's just life."
Ridley wants the Scene to be "a paper where nearly everything comes from Nashville" and "a place where writers want to be." He finds SouthComm's broader model of local media interesting but expects his own efforts will focus on the task of creating quality content. "The true test of this model," says Ridley, "is if we're putting out consistently first-rate papers and if the city notices."
Ferrell sees in the Scene's future a larger news hole, more local journalists writing for local readers, a return of some columnist bylines, and renewed attention to arts and entertainment. He predicts that combining the news staffs of the Scene and The City Paper will yield dividends in local beat coverage of politics, schools and neighborhoods. The merged newsroom does sound impressive, but its byproduct is a loss of competition in local news. Liberadio co-host Mary Mancini worries that less competition chips away at an informed local electorate: "If it reduces the amount of reporting, then it's bad."
Readers holding dead trees in their hands will have sensed a shinier future. The Scene with this issue joins The City Paper on glossy printed stock, which Ferrell says has magazine-like appeal for both readers and advertisers.
A critical variable going forward is SouthComm's online strategy. Eighteen months into SouthComm's ownership, The City Paper has yet to figure out the Web. Its home page remains an awkward mix of fresh and stale news—as I write this, the site's "top stories" include a four-day-old link to a minor political tidbit. (The Scene, meanwhile, missed changing the photo boxes above Pith for nearly two weeks while the deal was going down.) NashvillePost.com hosts influential aggregation blogs on politics and business, but City Paper blogging has been a bust, with staff blogs on politics, the arts, style and sports all fizzling into disuse; over the summer the paper quietly dropped "blogs" entirely from its online main menu.
The Scene's three blogs have been active and well-trafficked under VVM, and for now they will continue as is, although Pith experienced a steep drop in the frequency of posts during the week of the office move. In the long run Ferrell envisions a SouthComm "suite" of websites comprising a "vibrant online community," but major changes won't come until at least six to 12 months down the road. The city will be watching with interest to see if SouthComm is now ready to get serious about the online part of its media model.
The Scene changing hands isn't just a story about Chris Ferrell's theory of media and the Scene's editorial trajectory; it's also a story about a business deal that defines the paper's future. As a privately held firm SouthComm doesn't have to—and chooses not to—reveal terms of the Scene purchase, but $4 million is the neighborhood mentioned by insiders. The buzz in venture capital circles around town is that the sale involved some financing by VVM itself, which both CEO Ferrell and SouthComm board chair Townes Duncan will neither confirm nor deny.
Ferrell does acknowledge that new debt guaranteed by an individual SouthComm investor was significantly involved. He won't name the individual, but speculation naturally falls on Duncan, whose investment firm Solidus partnered with Ferrell to create SouthComm in the first place and is still majority owner. Another possibility is DeWitt Thompson V, a wealthy SouthComm board member who (with his father) owned a majority stake in The City Paper earlier this decade.
Details on the sale may seem like inside baseball better left to our biz-centric new colleagues at NashvillePost.com. But they matter because press ownership matters. The folks who buy the ink also choose the editors, set strategies and priorities, and gate-keep resources that ultimately define the reach and quality of the journalistic enterprise.
SouthComm ownership means that Nashville's mainstay alt-weekly is now controlled by people who are—how shall we put this gently?—very conservative. Board chair Duncan, whose firm Solidus is majority owner of SouthComm and the Scene, has made political contributions over the years to Bill Frist, Steve Gill, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (and Jim Cooper). The Thompsons (Dewitt V and family) are active and lavish GOP givers, writing checks to those four along with Marsha Blackburn, Van Hilleary, Ed Bryant and Fred Thompson (and Jim Cooper). Another SouthComm board member, Phillip Pfeffer, has a particular fondness for Blackburn, writing generous checks in each election cycle since she first won a Congressional seat in 2002 (but not Jim Cooper).
Should Scene readers, accustomed to the paper's progressive social and political voice, be concerned about ownership that is politically conservative? Ferrell, who had generally liberal instincts as a member of the Metro Council and certainly did no harm as Scene publisher, is a political counterweight on SouthComm's board, and there are two other board members who (like Ferrell) make no appearances in federal campaign finance databases.
Still, it's Townes Duncan and his firm who maintain financial control of the enterprise. For his part, Duncan frames the Scene acquisition as a business move that makes SouthComm solidly profitable. (The black ink may spill more from society rag Nfocus, which was part of the deal; Ferrell says the Scene itself right now is "barely" turning a profit.) Describing the Scene's voice as one of "arch, knowing commentary," Duncan insists he'll take no role in driving its editorial vision and adds that "we are not looking to change its voice."
Ferrell is unabashedly upbeat about the paper's future. "After 10 years the Scene is locally owned again," he says, "and people will feel like this is our local paper again." But will right-leaning owners make it a different local paper? Duncan, who displays in his office a picture of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan along with family photos, insists that "the Scene's readers have nothing to fear from me."
To borrow a favorite phrase from the guy with his name on that aircraft carrier, readers are invited to trust but verify.
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